Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guest Post: On The Difficulty of "Paskening" Science

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

A couple of years ago, Rabbi Slifkin published a post on the difficulties of "Paskening" scientific matters.   I'd like to share what seem to me to be some interesting examples that I found in a recently published book.  First I'll bring isolated examples of deriving conclusions about science from Torah, without describing the subject matter or personalities involved, by substituting [...] in the appropriate places.  I also put in bold arguments that strike me as parallels to contemporary arguments.

Quotation #1:
All the early philosophers were in agreement that [...]  As a result, many [scientists] have made fools themselves when they declare that [...]. They have left us with a lie, and the truth will bear witness that [...]  Rather they claim that [...] and because of this they mock our sages of blessed memory who stated that [...]
Quotation #2:
Woe to our generation who would question why [...] For one who believe in the Torah of Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace, and who believes that God has allowed his Divine Presence to shine in the lower world and [believes in God] who came in a great showing on Mount Sinai, who revealed himself to humanity...such a person would have no trouble in understanding why [...].   My teacher, the great [...] always had this reply at the ready.  He would say that the entire enterprise of [...] was to study the stars and the like...and as a result [...] found no purpose for the [...] and could not understand why [...]. But this is not so for us, the children of Israel who study the Torah that is even greater than [...] The proofs of [...] are in no way convincing for he has no say in this matter at all. We must follow the path of our Torah, which is followed by all the statements of the Rabbis and books of kabbalah...God forbid that any wise Jew would accept a lie...
Quotation #3:
"This system is absolutely false, do not believe it and do not listen to them in any way, for this is rejected by the Scriptures and by the holy prophets. for it states [...] All of these verses must be interpreted according to their plain meaning, namely that [...]"

Here are the full quotations.  I don't bring this to denigrate any of these authorities, God forbid.   We are no more intelligent or knowledgeable that they are; we just have better information available to us due to an accident of birth.  [Update: I'll add that even some of the greatest scientists in history sometimes were sometimes very mistaken about science.  Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on alchemy, and Linus Pauling on an odd obsession with vitamin C.  Albert Einstein never came to terms with the quantum theory that he helped to invent.]  My purpose is to show that even great Talmidei Chachamim can face great difficulties in deriving science from Torah.  I think that this should give pause to others trying to go down a similar path.

Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz:
"All the early philosophers were in agreement that the stars orbit [the earth] in order to obtain [spiritual] perfection, and this is how they worship God, just as we worship God through the performance of his mitzvot in order to obtain perfection for our souls. They reach perfection for their intellectual souls through their movements and continued orbiting...just as God ordered them to be quick and orbit the Earth each and every day.
...
As a result, many astronomers, including Copernicus and his supporters, have made fools of themselves when they declare that the Earth orbits [the Sun]. They have left us with a lie, and the truth will bear witness that the Earth stands still for ever... Since the reason that the stars orbit is to become [spiritually] perfect, being endowed with both a soul and intelligence, any challenges raised by Copernicus can be answered. They asked, could it be that the Sun and all the planets move simply to illuminate the tiny Earth? But this is not an objection, for they orbit to obtain spiritual perfection and to receive Divine influence, for this is the service that they have been commanded to perform. Now, some later Christians maintain that not all the planets are intellectual or spiritual beings, and that they lack an intellect that drives them. Rather they claim that the planets are inanimate material, just like, the Earth itself... and because of this they mock our sages of blessed memory who stated that the planets rejoice and are happy in their performance of the will of their creator.
Rav Israel David Schlesinger, student of Chasam Sofer:
Woe to our generation who would question why the Sun would orbit the Earth.  For one who believe in the Torah of Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace, and who believes that God has allowed his Divine Presence to shine in the lower world and [believes in God] who came in a great showing on Mount Sinai, who revealed himself to humanity...such a person would have no trouble in understanding why the Earth would be more important than the Sun.  He will believe what is clearly stated: "and God put them [the Sun and the Moon] in the skies to light up the Earth" [Gen 1:17].  My teacher, the great Rabbi Moses Sofer always had this reply at the ready.  He would say that the entire enterprise of Copernicus was to study the stars and the like...and as a result [Copernicus] found no purpose for the Earth and could not understand why the Sun would orbit it.  But this is not so for us, the children of Israel who study the Torah that is even greater than the Sun.  It is indeed fitting that the Sun should shine on the Earth, not for the sake of the planet, but for the sake of those who dwell on it and who study that which is even greater than the Sun...  The proofs of Copernicus are in no way convincing for he has no say in this matter at all. We must follow the path of our Torah, which is followed by all the statements of the rabbis and books of kabbalah... God forbid that any wise Jew would accept a lie...".
R. Reuven Landau:
This system is absolutely false, do not believe it and do not listen to them in any way, for this is rejected by the Scriptures and by the holy prophets. For it states in Kohelet that "the Sun rises and the Sun comes" and in the tenth chapter of the book of Joshua it states "...the Sun stood motionless in Givon" and in the thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah it states "..The sun returned ten degrees, the number of degrees that it has moved."  All of these verses must be interpreted according to their plain meaning, namely that the Earth rests in its place, and that the Sun, the Moon, and all the planets orbit it.
Quotations and translation taken from Dr. Jeremy Brown's New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.  Dr. Brown posted here previously on Rabbinic Responses to the Transit of Venus.  See also יחסה של הספרות היהודית לקופרניקוס במשך הדורות by Rabbi Eliezer Brodt.

The views in this post are mine and may not represent the views of the blog owner. I encourage comments and will make every attempt to address any questions in the comments section.

52 comments:

  1. Note that the arguments they are opposing aren't scientific arguments but rather philosophical arguments for a heliocentric universe.

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  2. You might want to add the Rogachover's espousal of spontaneous generation and rejection of what scientists saw in microscopes. See Commentary to Moreh Nevuchim I:72.

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  3. Jack said...
    Note that the arguments they are opposing aren't scientific arguments but rather philosophical arguments for a heliocentric universe.


    Don't read too much into that. I quoted the philosophical/religious arguments because of the parallel with today's arguments from the Torah. They used a mix of religious and scientific arguments as is done today. The earliest of the authorities quoted was born after the Newton's Principia was published, so there was real science there to argue.

    Also, at least some of the religious arguments run counter to any scientific argument. For example, Rav Eybeschutz felt that the Torah mandated that the planets be something other than inanimate objects.

    Finally, this kind of shifting to religious grounds happens today as well. So both an ancient universe and evolution are typically opposed on 3 grounds:

    1) Scientific(-like) arguments, such as "carbon dating is not reliable". This is sometimes stated as "science 'X' is a hoax".

    2) The pesukim oppose it.

    3) The scientists are atheists who want to erase God from the equation. (This enables a shift from the science to a religious argument in order to gain "home field advantage".).

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  4. Simon said...
    You might want to add the Rogachover's espousal of spontaneous generation and rejection of what scientists saw in microscopes. See Commentary to Moreh Nevuchim I:72.


    I was not aware of that. However, I'll say:

    1) My point was not compile a list of those supporting odd opinions through history. That would encompass all groups. Newton apparently wasted gobs of time in Alchemy and Linus Pauling in an odd obsession with vitamin "C".

    2) My impression of the Rogachover Gaon was that he was iconoclastic in many different ways, and so is not a good representative. This impression may be based on ignorance.

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  5. Hi David,

    Thanks for the interesting posts over the last fortnight.

    This post is timely, in that Scientific American recently (January 2014)published an article titled "The Case Against Copernicus" (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-case-against-copernicus/). The reason I bring it up is because the authors argue that it is only very recently (i.e. in the last 300 year) that (at least) the geo-heliocentric model of the universe has been consigned to the dustbin of erroneous hypothesis.

    The authors of this article write:
    Copernicus proposed his revolutionary ideas in 1543 in his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, which many scientists then read, admired, annotated and used for improving their astronomical predictions. Yet even by 1600, 57 years later, no more than a dozen serious astronomers had given up belief in an unmoving Earth. Most scientists continued to prefer the more commonsense geocentrism we ourselves still appear to endorse when we talk, for example, about the sun rising and setting. (emphasis added)

    The reason I draw attention to this article is because it makes the point that until relatively recently informed scientist had reason to question (not doubt) the Copernican model, and there was reason to believe in some form of geo-heliocentrism. It should therefor be unremarkable that "lay" people (scientifically lay) still had reason to doubt heliocentrism.

    This doubt no longer exist, and quotes from 19th Century Rabbis, whose level of scientific understanding could best be described as "lay" should not be limiting our understanding of the majestria of G-d.

    (As a side note, a Copernican, when forced to provide an explanation of how the planets moved, absent a theory of gravity wrote "These things that vulgar sorts see as absurd at first glance are not easily charged with absurdity, for in fact divine Sapience and Majesty are far greater than they understand," wrote Copernican...Grant the vastness of the Universe and the sizes of the stars to be as great as you like -- these will still bear no proportion to the infinite Creator. It reckons that the greater the king, so much greater and larger the palace befitting his majesty. So how great a palace do you reckon is fitting to G-D")

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  6. I just want to add that we do not know for a fact that the planets are not alive or do not have have some form of intelligence, though I don't know of any proof for that idea.

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  7. I'm fascinated that the actual philosophical argument never gets attention. Is the world random, arbitrary, or guided. That's what arguments about evolution and the age if the universe are actually about.

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  8. Thanks for the post. I've been thinking that the Copernican principle is the crux of the Slifkin ban in particular and the Jewish struggle with modernity in general. Its easy to sit back and chuckle at the commentaries quoted here for their lack of sophistication. But the bigger question for us "moderns" that have come to terms with Copernicus' science (almost 500 years later) is to how deal with the philosophical implications thereof.
    The Copernican principle says that humans are not privileged observers of the universe. The Torah teaches us the opposite. So do we accept Copernicus' science, but not the philosophy that derives from it?

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  9. Thanks for the post. I've been thinking that the Copernican principle is the crux of the Slifkin ban in particular and the Jewish struggle with modernity in general. Its easy to sit back and chuckle at the commentaries quoted here for their lack of sophistication. But the bigger question for us "moderns" that have come to terms with Copernicus' science (almost 500 years later) is to how deal with the philosophical implications thereof.
    The Copernican principle says that humans are not privileged observers of the universe. The Torah teaches us the opposite. So do we accept Copernicus' science, but not the philosophy that derives from it?

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  10. Jack, you said..
    "Note that the arguments they are opposing aren't scientific arguments but rather philosophical arguments for a heliocentric universe"

    I doubt these rabbis (or anyone of their day) would recognize the distinction between a scientific and a philosophical argument. They were simply making arguments about how the universe works based on the evidence they considered most compelling.
    It's only our current knowledge of the scientific method allows us to characterize arguments as either scientific or non-scientific (i.e. philosophical/religious)

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  11. Ipcha:

    On that standard, we also don't know "for a fact" whether you are a human being or an elephant who has developed the ability to read and understand English and can telepathically move the keys on a computer keyboard so as to arrive at this blog and comment using the name "Ipcha". In fact, we don't even know "for a fact" that this blog exists at all; we [I, I suppose] could simply be imagining this whole thing as a Matrix/Brain-in-a-Vat/mental patient. It is not, however, reasonable to conclude that any of those things are remotely likely.

    Amateur:
    I'm not sure why you think a 14B year old universe and evolution mean that things are "random" or "arbitrary". It just means that God's creation is a product of great wisdom and beauty, rather than pure will without internal logic

    Yitz:
    Similarly, I'm not sure why you think (1) Copernicus has anything to do with humanity's place in the cosmos; or (2) that the Torah demands that humanity be the only form of intelligent life in the cosmos.

    The earth orbits the sun. That doesn't mean humanity can't be a "privileged observer" - it simply means that the argument "of course we are privileged, since the earth is at the center of the universe and everything revolves around it" is invalid. (BTW, it's not invalid because it's false; in an infinite universe, the Earth is at the center [the universe extends the same distance - infinite - in all directions from the Earth], and bodies in space orbit each other, so everything does revolve around the Earth. It's invalid because those same arguments apply with equal force to every other location in the universe, meaning there's nothing special about the Earth's status as the center of the universe about which everything else revolves).

    And the Torah doesn't demand that humanity be the only intelligent life in the universe, let alone its center. It focuses on humans because it was given to humans. If there is other life out there, I would expect it to have its own "Torah" - and for the contents to be dramatically different, given that other intelligent life would likely have other drives and imperatives than humans for an "alien Torah" to address.

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  12. ipcha: Why in the world would we assume the planets are alive and possess intelligence? The medievals assumed so in order to account for planetary motion. But now we can account for planetary motion on the basis of purely mechanical principles: the laws of motion and the law of gravity. What next? Maybe you should assume rocks are alive and possess intelligence.

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  13. The Copernican principle says that humans are not privileged observers of the universe. The Torah teaches us the opposite. So do we accept Copernicus' science, but not the philosophy that derives from it?

    To add to what others have said, the Rambam had already recognized this problem given the vast distances and great sizes that even their understanding of the heavenly bodies implied:

    We must in continuing the inquiry as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, It was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have, therefore, introduced in our prayers (for Ne‘ilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--"Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee?" They have thus clearly stated that it was not a final cause that determined the existence of all things, but only His will. This being the case, we who believe in the Creation must admit that God could have created the Universe in a different manner as regards the causes and effects contained in it, and this would lead to the absurd conclusion that everything except man existed without any purpose, as the principal object, man, could have been brought into existence without the rest of the creation. I consider therefore the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible, and best in accordance with the results of philosophy; namely, that the Universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being exists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in the Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of the existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the Universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings, that include their own purpose in themselves. In the same manner as it was the will of God that man should exist, so it was His will that the heavens with their stars should exist, that there should be angels, and each of these beings is itself the purpose of its own existence.

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  14. I've been thinking that the Copernican principle is the crux of the Slifkin ban in particular and the Jewish struggle with modernity in general. Its easy to sit back and chuckle at the commentaries quoted here for their lack of sophistication.

    I want to emphasize again that my point was not to say that we are better than they are. It is to say that we need to learn what the past teaches us about the pitfalls of such reasoning.

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  15. Ameteur said...
    I'm fascinated that the actual philosophical argument never gets attention. Is the world random, arbitrary, or guided. That's what arguments about evolution and the age if the universe are actually about.


    I assume that is because, since the scientific revolution, we have come to realize that settling matters of science through philosophical debate doesn't work. An apt quotation from Feynman:

    The story begins with the ancients observing the motions of planets among the stars, and finally deducing that they went around the sun, a fact that was rediscovered later by Copernicus. Exactly how the planets went around the sun, with exactly what motion, took a little more work to discover. In the beginning of the fifteenth century there were great debates as to whether they really went around the sun or not. Tycho Brahe had an idea that was different from anything proposed by the ancients: his idea was that these debates about the nature of the motions of the planets would best be resolved if the actual positions of the planets in the sky were measured sufficiently accurately. If measurement showed exactly how the planets moved, then perhaps it would be possible to establish one or another viewpoint. This was a tremendous idea—that to find something out, it is better to perform some careful experiments than to carry on deep philosophical arguments. Pursuing this idea, Tycho Brahe studied the positions of the planets for many years in his observatory on the island of Hven, near Copenhagen. He made voluminous tables, which were then studied by the mathematician Kepler, after Tycho’s death. Kepler discovered from the data some very beautiful and remarkable, but simple, laws regarding planetary motion.

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  16. It may have been known for 500 years that the earth orbits the sun, but that does not stop even the most scientifically-minded periodicals from giving us times for "sunrise".

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  17. This post is timely, in that Scientific American recently (January 2014)published an article titled "The Case Against Copernicus" (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-case-against-copernicus/). The reason I bring it up is because the authors argue that it is only very recently (i.e. in the last 300 year) that (at least) the geo-heliocentric model of the universe has been consigned to the dustbin of erroneous hypothesis.

    I don't have access to this article without paying, so I can't comment on what it says.

    In general however, there was still great fealty to Aristotle, and, in fact, Copernicus himself was attempting to banish the equant of Ptolemy in order to restore Aristotle's uniform circular motion. He still had to put in epicycles. Plus there was the religious opposition.

    However, by the time of Rav Eybeshutz, heliocentrism was way past Copernicus. Kepler, Galileo and Newton had pretty much sealed it, except for the detection of stellar parallax. Which is not to say that he knew of this. Also, even after Newton, I believe that there were those on the continent who resisted for some time.

    The bottom line is that I'm not faulting any of these authorities. I'm just pointing out the pitfalls of using religious arguments on these topics.

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  18. Hi again David,

    However, by the time of Rav Eybeshutz, heliocentrism was way past Copernicus. Kepler, Galileo and Newton had pretty much sealed it, except for the detection of stellar parallax.

    Firstly, strictly speaking Galileo did not prove (or even demonstrate) the Copernican model, rather it disproved the Ptolemic model of the solar system.

    Steller Parallax was only observed in 1838, one year prior to the Chatam Sofer's death. The stellar parallax problem was a key scientific challenge to the Copernican model. Other key observation to support the Coppernican system were not made until the mid 19th Century.

    The reason I raise this is that while it is difficult for us to imagine that anyone believed in anything other the heliocentrism post Galileo, the truth is that geo-heliocentrism was in fact a more credible model right up to and including the lifetime in the Chatam Sofer. Since this remained a disputed scientific hypothesis (heliocentrism), it seems less irrational for senior religious thinkers to take a philosophical stand, based on theological foundations. But the evidence has conclusively debunked the criticism of the Copernican model, such that it is untenable to reasonably believe in a geocentric, small and young universe model.

    The question that I am raising is; what is the validity of relying on the Chatam Sofer as a theological authority regarding cosmology, when we can reasonably believe that the cosmology that he was discussing remained in dispute during his lifetime? It was reasonable for the Chatam Sofer to dispute the Copernican model in his day, today it is just absurd.

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  19. As a side note, it is fortunate that you quote Feynman regarding Tyco Brahe, since it was his observations that raised experimental doubt on Copernicus's Model, that were only debunked (due to the invention of better technology) in the 1830s.

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  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  21. Down at the most basic level...

    If you're doing science you don't pasken.

    If you pasken you aren't doing science.

    If you keep trying to say reality isn't real because it gives you the sads and makes you reinterpret your favorite stories you are a fool.

    A bit sorry to have to say this.

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  22. Again, why the hyperbolic deference? Yonatan Eybeshitz was a Sabbatean and his arguments are idiotic.

    And, in case you are not aware, all Hasidim, including (actually especially) Lubavitch teach today that heliocentrism is heresy. The Litvishe world is coming round slowly. You can't use reduction ad absurdum with these people.

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  23. Mr Ohsie it matters not how many times or in how many ways you repeat the purpose of this post; in the end someone will always accuse you of disrespecting the authorities and rejecting Torah. Just look up the anti-R. Slifkin bloggers in a couple of days. Splendid posts, by the way; you are a true scholar and a genuine Gentleman...meant sincerely and in the classic sense of those words.

    Akiva, one is astounded and disappointed by the unnecessary flight to absurd and unscientific mystical explanations in your hypothesis regarding ipcha. Proposing an elephant with English language facility and writing abilities stretches credibility, but such a thing is within the realm of possibilities. Suggesting that only telepathy could operate such a device (actually, telekinesis would be more appropriate) is flight into pseudoscientific obscurantism. A perfectly natural physical solution is already available in the form of a giant Qwerty-type keyboard. See:

    http://www.eightforums.com/attachments/windows-8-news/19667d1365238639-windows-blue-poised-become-windows-8-1-giant-stone-keyboard.png

    Anyhow, it's much easier to make a symbolized image of an elephant with a keyboard than to get an elephant to use one. To wit... ~:3

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  24. Further to Gavriel M's point, modern Chabad and other Jewish geocentrists, like their Christian counterparts who they shamelessly (and without crediting) ape, have latched onto the Theory of Relativity to somehow explain that the Earth is the stationary point, with the entire Universe whirling around it. A slight problem with this model is that our outer planets would already have to reach or exceed the speed of light to go around us, never mind the outer reaches of our known Universe, which would of course cancel out Relativity Theory with its presumption that nothing can travel faster than light. Oops, tee-hee.

    But all is not lost; geocentrists have clued on to the fact that Quantum Mechanics opens the door for any explanation one can make up after an hour or so of googling and cutting and pasting a few cool words and sentences. That one's much better material because no one really understands even the basic premises of QM anyway.

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  25. Gavriel M, let me offer an observation for you to ponder. When one it gets the point where it is not enough to deride one's intellectual opponents, but one must also deride those who don't sufficiently deride one's intellectual opponents, then perhaps one has gone overboard with the derision.

    Also, a request. When making a post of this type, one always runs the risk it of it being used to hold up people to ridicule. I really don't want to have my posts go in that direction, and that was not my purpose. I didn't anticipate that my very disclaimer intended to clarify my intention would prompt such a response, but I suppose this validates the Halacha about being careful with praise that may lead to Lashon Hara (I'm not accusing you of that, but noticing that the principle of unintended consequences implied by that halacha is upheld here).

    I don't moderate the comments for my own posts and I'm now realizing that I'm glad that I don't have that job.

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  26. @Dan Gambiera: I disagree for the reasons stated in my post.

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  27. The reason I raise this is that while it is difficult for us to imagine that anyone believed in anything other the heliocentrism post Galileo, the truth is that geo-heliocentrism was in fact a more credible model right up to and including the lifetime in the Chatam Sofer.

    I believe this is untrue, for a couple of reasons. The correct answer to lack of observable stellar parallax was well understood, although unproven: the great distance to the stars. The measurement of stellar parallax proved what was already understood as the correct explanation. There was an open question, but nothing to impeach credibility. On the other hand, Kepler's laws were validated quantitatively with the best data. Especially after Newton, there was no scientific question as to which model was more credible. Also, stellar aberration, explained in 1729, was actually the first "proof" that the earth moves.

    I'll add that while Chasam Sofer came down against Copernicus, but he also said it was hard to decide. I don't know of any evidences that had anything to do with the lack of stellar parallax. From Dr. Brown's book, it appears that he did not mention this.

    In any case, the quotation in the post is from a student of Chasam Sofer.

    As a side note, it is fortunate that you quote Feynman regarding Tyco Brahe, since it was his observations that raised experimental doubt on Copernicus's Model, that were only debunked (due to the invention of better technology) in the 1830s.

    Not really. Kepler analyzed Brahe's data to come up with the correct laws of planetary motion and Newton then proved that these were a consequence of Gravity and his laws of mechanics. It is true that Brahe himself come up with his own Tychonic system which was a combination of geocentrism and heliocentrism, but that was only partly based on lack of stellar parallax. There was a lot of Church influence as well.

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  28. David,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response

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  29. Those wondering how anyone could be so daft as to believe that stars, planets, the Sun, are relatively nearby objects, need to consider that the only reason we perceive them as very far away objects is because on a personal level, we as non-astronomers, now believe them to be far away. We have been told so from childhood and have incorporated it into our library of basic conceptual constructs. We perceive distances visually, through parallax view, and angular and atmospheric perspectives. Perspective is meaningless when looking at the sky's canopy and with parallax, it works with a pencil held at the end of our arm. or an object at a few hundred feet at most, but not with astronomical objects light years or Angstrom units away. Only theoretical models and advanced instrumentation in the form of precise optics and chronometers and accurate measurement tools to gauge fractions of angles or Doppler shift colours can give us a fair idea about the distances of relatively nearby stars. The ancients, and in this case people living up to a couple of hundred of years ago, were not idiots who should have known better; with no guidance from their senses and a lack of instrumentation and theoretical frame works, they saw what culture and learned belief told them. Just as the rest of us non-scientists perceive the world today.

    Sounds silly? Look up to the heavens, try to, if possible, take away the learned concept of stellar distances and those stars might easily be pin-pricks of light on a canopy a few hundred miles up, if not nearer. This eerie change in perception is difficult to achieve after a life-time of "knowing" that the stars are very, very far away indeed, but an hour or so and a beer or two for this exercise on a warm Summer's night at the cottage can bring you a genuine and cheap paradigm shift you can nearly taste. Try it, folks, really, a mind-blowing experience guaranteed. For a better effect, prime yourself by reading up on literature by the Flat Earth Society people, or by viewing some of their YouTube videos, and a for a few fleeting moments you'll get an almost claustrophobic feeling of a much smaller universe reduced to pretty lights on a ceiling. Just remember to pick up the empties off the lawn if you don't want to try and explain your mental experiment to your spouse.

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  30. Temujuin: I used to teach in a Lubavitch "school" and quit over this issue. I remember an enraged child screaming at me in the playground over it. It's not even the worst thing they do to children.

    David Ohsie:

    1) I reiterate. Yonatan Eyebeshitz was a Sabatean and it is a mitzvah to relate this fact, not least because, under normal circumstances, it is forbidden to read his writings. I realise you believe that no-one is a min unless he tattoos "I am a min" on his forehead. There is no need to go over that again.

    2) Again, the main point is that you can't use heliocentrism as some sort of reduction ad absurdum against Haredi anti-science ideology because outside the Anglo-Yeshivish sector Geocentrism is entirely mainstream in the Haredi world and possibly the majority view. To be honest, I don't think you realise quite what a serious precipice orthodox Judaism is on. A very significant and powerful proportion of orthodox Jewry is way, way further off the sanity radar than the most fringe extreme of the American religious right times 1000.

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  31. Gavriel M; an understandable response. A complicated world, this. Some of the nicest people Temujin has come across in his travels over the plains of grass are Chabad people. He admires their dedication and willingness to risk...and sacrifice, as we have seen...their lives to serve as beacons for wandering Jews in far away places. From time to time one enjoys the warmth of their Sunday morning shahrit and High Holidays at the Chabad house of one's former university have become a minhag of sorts for one's family, not the least because of the friendship with the shaliach couple's family. But yes, they do hold to some unacceptable-to-Temujin notions. Even shocking and alarming ones, if one must admit. And no, not all of their followers have been paragons of virtue and saintliness. Complicated world, indeed. Ah, well, when one checks the instruction manuals now and again, he still can't find a claim by our Creator that it would be simple or easy. Caveat emptor, what?

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  32. 1) I reiterate. Yonatan Eyebeshitz was a Sabatean and it is a mitzvah to relate this fact, not least because, under normal circumstances, it is forbidden to read his writings. I realise you believe that no-one is a min unless he tattoos "I am a min" on his forehead. There is no need to go over that again.

    Gavriel M., Your comments give me enjoyment and I laugh every time I read them (not because they are foolish; they are just funny to me). This not a counter-argument, just an observation.

    Needless to say, regardless of the historical controversy, I don't think your "p'sak" to ban Rav Eybeshutz's works has been fully accepted. Maybe your minions haven't posted enough Pashkevelim. If you only you had the power of a Chasidishe Rebbe or a Litvak Gadol, you could set the world straight, or at least part of it :).

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  33. it matters not how many times or in how many ways you repeat the purpose of this post; in the end someone will always accuse you of disrespecting the authorities

    That is the heinous offense of the scientific revolution: It dismisses authority and relies on observation.

    Ooooh. Copernicus proposed his ideas with incomplete observational support and was subjected to contemporary critiques, some of which were well founded. He was later found to be wrong about some things. Tycho Brahe's cosmology was wrong.... but his observations were sound.

    Modern rationalists think this is all good. We admire Tycho for his observational rigor; Copernicus for getting a big piece right even in advance of sufficient information. Meanwhile, others talk about the quantum observer phenomenon as if it applies to parallax on the cosmic scale.

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  34. Again, the main point is that you can't use heliocentrism as some sort of reduction ad absurdum against Haredi anti-science ideology because outside the Anglo-Yeshivish sector Geocentrism is entirely mainstream in the Haredi world and possibly the majority view. To be honest, I don't think you realise quite what a serious precipice orthodox Judaism is on. A very significant and powerful proportion of orthodox Jewry is way, way further off the sanity radar than the most fringe extreme of the American religious right times 1000.

    First off, I did have personal experience of a Geocentrist in my son's school.

    However, in general, almost no American non-Chasidic Charedi will go down that path. I think that this is only possible in the very sheltered communities wherever they are.

    Also, see my last post where Rav Merzbach was willing to take the other side publicly in the Charedi camp. I don't think that you would see such an article on the age of the universe. I also don't think that Rabbi Meiselman is a geocentrist. So there is a significant set of people who might be influenced by the type of logic used in this post.

    That said, I'm not out to either save or condemn various part of the world, so it doesn't make that much of a difference to me exactly what each subgroup thinks. I would like to reduce wasteful conflict.

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  35. Gavriel M., your adamant labeling of Rav Eyebeshitz as a heretic is both extreme and of little consequence. Even if he were a supporter of Shabbetai Zvi, a matter than has not been fully resolved - to my knowledge, that would not make him, ipso facto, a heretic. You would need evidence that he, too, considered abrogating some mitzvot of the torah - particularly, serious prohibitions. I don't see why a layman needs to get involved in an academic dispute, and to take such a stance against a savant who was supported by none else than the Vilna Gaon.

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  36. Yossi said...
    David,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response


    Thank you for your comments. It motivated me to do some more research on when the Tychonic system was rejected and why.

    Also, I want to add that I'm not asserting than any given authority should have known better. My point is that the Torah based arguments that seemed to "disprove" heliocentrism were actually invalid.

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  37. Gavriel M, if you will allow an admittedly biased defense of Rabbi Yonatan Eibenschutz who was an esteemed Rabbi, a legend indeed, in Temujin's favourite city, Prague.

    Rabbi E was embroiled in stormy kehilla politics of the communities of Prague and Germany, which was not unusual for those stressful times. History records that he was accused, several times, of Sabbateanism, but that he vehemently denied it.

    Much was made by the possibility that members of his family and some of his students were tainted by the heresy, but that is not unusual either. If real, and one must keep in mind that charges of heresy flew like sparrows in those times, few could realistically escape the taint. We forget how widespread, popular and powerful the messianic movements were in Eastern and Central Europe. There were few communities and families...high and low... who were not affected by these and who didn't later spent considerable energy to shove their histories under the proverbial rug. The history of those times is fascinating, as messianic frenzies and minor tremors and echoes which were barely recorded by historians, continued to ripple through many isolated communities and right under the noses of the leadership well into the mid-19th century. As an aside, one finds it amusing that the Hassidic "Oreo cookie" outfits with the kaftan and shtreimls which some sects treat with near-reverence, were popularized by the pseudo-messiah Jacob Frank and several thousand of his followers who converted to Catholicism, made into minor nobles and were given the right to prance around in the already unfashionable formal outfit of the Polish nobleman.

    Anyhow, neither should the well-known accusation by Rabbi Yakov Emden be taken as prima facie evidence; as big as messianic movements were, puritanical heresy-hunts were just as big...and lucrative, and politically advantageous as such things can be in other religions too. All we know with fair certainty, though, is that Rabbi Eybenschuetz was a cabbalist, a mystic, and a believer in amulets...hardly newsworthy for the times, or for today, one might add. But he did not preach Sabbateanism and did not leave a shred of real evidence that he was a Sabbatean. Such facts should count. Innocent until proven guilty, should be the historian's rule too!

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  38. David, I realize you are required to disagree. The point remains.

    Science is absolutely incompatible with a philosophical system based on arguments from authority, particularly unfalsifiable authority.

    Revealed religion is radically irreconcilable with a philosophical system that permits disproof of the revealed texts and will not permit infallible authorities.

    You bring up mistakes made by scientists. Science often makes mistakes. It is a necessary part of the enterprise. There are mechanisms however imperfect for correcting them and doing better science. Those mechanisms and the philosophical apparatus which surrounds them continue to change. That is why Newton's alchemy, Copernicus' circular orbits, Darwin's uniformitarianism and the early rejection of continental drift are non-issues.

    Newton is not the scientific equivalent of one of the Sages. He did important work, but his authority extends precisely to point where the particulars are wrong and no further. One cannot, must not, "pasek" him. To do so is to cease doing science. There can be no scientific Chazal.

    Contrariwise, if Torah and the observed facts are in conflict what can one do? The authorities you cite say "You can't even ask the question," a simple, straightforward rejection of science.

    You can try to find an authority such as the Rambam who will let you limit the authority of other authorities and allow you to do a certain amount of science but no more.

    You can try to walk the border of non-overlapping magisteria with the understanding that it tends to move in one direction only.

    In the end I'm afraid your attempts and those of Rav Slifkin are valiant and laudable but doomed to inevitable disappointment.

    You will be considered heretics by the people you are trying to win over. They are jealous of their position and rightfully fear the possibility of incursion. They recognize that their entire system of belief and the ordering principles of their lives cannot tolerate the presence of other ways of looking at the world.

    It doesn't matter how many Rishonim you quote or how wisely you frame the argument. The iconoclastic nature of free inquiry cannot co-exist with their perspective.

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  39. @Dan Gambiera

    While not required to disagree, I do. But let me be specific about my disagreement. You said the following:

    If you keep trying to say reality isn't real because it gives you the sads and makes you reinterpret your favorite stories you are a fool.

    If you are applying this epithet to the authorities who I mentioned, then I disagree. Newton's time wasted on alchemy and Copernicus's reverence of the authority of Aristotle is relevant, precisely because 1) they were both vastly incorrect and based on what we now know to be odd, non-empirical notions with no basis in reality 2) neither of them were fools.

    I find the Einstein example even more compelling. He just couldn't fully accept quantum theory, seemingly due to some axioms in his head about how the world must work. He was not a fool.

    Newton is not the scientific equivalent of one of the Sages. He did important work, but his authority extends precisely to point where the particulars are wrong and no further.

    Correct, and yet Newton was not a fool, despite going over into other areas which were essentially a waste of the resources of a great genius.

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  40. Yoel B said: That is the heinous offense of the scientific revolution: It dismisses authority and relies on observation.

    A heinous offense? Just a system for studying the natural World we were given for our pleasure and asked not to muck-up. Merely a way of knowing which doesn't always guarantee correct results, but which in the cumulative, produces the best collection of such precisely because it doesn't follow or claim authority. When applied correctly, of course. The magical device with which you sent your thoughts to this forum is a tainted spawn of that heinous offense, you should know. Better smash-up the ruddy contrivance as a sign of your loyalty to whatever authority you may have in mind, then.

    An aside: Temujin nearly missed your comment, had he not vaguely remembered and recognized his own sentence in your post. Not addressing a fellow commenter by his chosen moniker may communicate righteous disapproval, but more often just common churlishness, Yoel. Worse, you may have been deprived of one's wise response.

    To continue: "Meanwhile, others talk about the quantum observer phenomenon as if it applies to parallax on the cosmic scale." They do? One must speak to those characters. Mixing-up things like wave function collapse with, say, the extra-galactic distance scale? Is that what you meant? Bit woolly, that sentence as it stands on its own; feel free to expand and expound on your critique.

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  41. Temujuin.
    "We forget how widespread, popular and powerful the messianic movements were in Eastern and Central Europe. There were few communities and families...high and low... who were not affected by these and who didn't later spent considerable energy to shove their histories under the proverbial rug. "

    It is precisely because I am acutely aware of this that I am belabouring the point. If Sabbateanism was some long-dead insignificant heresy, it would not really matter if Eyebeschitz was a Sabbatean or not and, I dare say, there would not be much danger in reading his writings today. In reality, Sabbatean thought in various forms continues to be extremely influential in Judaism today, with extremely deleterious results. Moreover, if we treat what we read in the Humash with any degree of seriousness whatsoever (and after the tekehlet debate this strikes me as an open question), we must acknowledge that we are not allowed simply to tolerate these ideas.

    I will give a simple example. One of the relatively few times Hazal give a clear account of what sort of ideas are unacceptable is in the mishnayot Megilla 4:9 and Brachot 5:3. The main set of ideas forbidden is the dualist heresy, which has had various expressions in Manichaenism, Gnosticism, Bogomilism and Albigensianism. The basics of the ideology in all cases are division of the world between an evil force, which is the lord of matter and of most humans and a good force to which belong the souls, but not the bodies of the righteous. Now, in the very first chapter of the Tanya (before you even get to the outrageous racist stuff) there is as clear and unambiguous a statement of this belief system as you could possibly hope for. Meanwhile, five year old children are learning this filth b'al peh and we're discussing whether we might be heretics for refusing to believe that Rav Elyashiv (or whoever) re-wrote the laws of physics with his magic p'sak.


    וְלֹא-שָׁמַע עַמִּי לְקוֹלִי; וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-אָבָה לִי. וָאֲשַׁלְּחֵהוּ, בִּשְׁרִירוּת לִבָּם; יֵלְכוּ, בְּמוֹעֲצוֹתֵיהֶם

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  42. "However, in general, almost no American non-Chasidic Charedi will go down that path. I think that this is only possible in the very sheltered communities wherever they are."

    If current events (or the Slifkin affair) tell us anything it is that when the Israeli Haredim say 'jump' the American non-Chasidic Charedim say 'how high?' I have no idea whether events will one day contrive to make American Haredism have to choose between Heliocentrism and slavishly following their gedolim into the abyss, but I do know what choice they will make if they do. They'll feel a little silly about it, and a few individuals might bolt the movement, but for the most part they'll switch over pretty seamlessly.

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  43. Dear Sirs
    I have been following your blog for some time and greatly enjoy it. I was actually briefly in Yeshivah in Israel with Rabbi Slifkin at Midrash Shmuel (I was an immature first year and i doubt you would have know i was in the Yeshivah). I started blogging this past year and have most recently written a post that mentions Rabbi Slifkin a few times and may be of interest to you. it also pertains somewhat to your guest blogger.
    I would be most grateful for any and all feedback and if you do publish the response i would be most grateful if you would offer a link to my blog as i am trying to get it a little publicity
    Many thanks
    Best regards
    Dovi Greenman
    London

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  44. Dear Rabbi Slifkin
    further to my previous email i forgot to send you the link to my new blog.
    it is:

    http://thursdayswithmichael.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/dont-know-much-about-science-books-part.html

    Many thanks
    Best regards
    Dovi Greenman

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  45. Gavriel M, it's not like you will get much of a counter-argument from Temujin on your points. It's the futility of the thrust and intensity behind your charges one is more concerned about. Do you really think there is a point in getting deeper into these 18th century controversies? That you can separate the sane guys from the lunatics? Maybe, maybe Eybenshutz had Sabbatean leanings, but in the context of the goings-on, so what? You also have his nemesis, the anti-Sabbatean Emden, smelling Sabbateans everywhere, cracking open Eyebenshutz's amulets to "see" cryptic references to Shabtai Zvi's name and running off to Holland finking on him to the Christian authorities, trying to alert the World to the crisis of the century. Emden, who collaborates in censoring of the Talmud, but also heroically and ably defends the Jews against the blood libels of Eastern Europe, goes on to defend Christianity as a good and proper religion for non-Jews...pretty much as Rambam had done. The latter eventually makes Emden a hero to modern Messianic Jews who still see a proto-messianist in him. And Emden also argued for the reinstatement of polygamy and concubinage for scholars...so that their "greater yetzer hara" could find a safe outlet, or something to that effect. Well, the Sabbateans and Frankists probably appreciated that one.

    The Tanya a dualist, Gnostic work? Fine. Not much to say against that one either, except that the charge of racism is way over the top; the notion that Jews have a different kind of a soul is a theistic argument, "our religion/nature is better than everyone else's." Pretty standard stuff all around, but Chabad does qualify that the souls of good non-Jews can be similar to Jewish souls. Not much different from what Judah Halevi thought. As folks here are pointing out in various ways, we need to evaluate people, yes people, not just ideologies and "isms" as whole, complex beings who make up the systems and in spite of many things, even the Lubavitch are doing a lot of good as well. (And where else but a welcoming Chabad house would Temujin find a place for a real Shabbat and be able to satisfy his Mongol warrior's meat-hunger with a purchased freezer-load of kosher chickens when visiting his old hunting plains in Europe?) The point is that the whole mystical tradition turned into a slapstick by the 18th century, a problem when mysticism is popularized and when the general society reverts to pagan revivals amidst political and social upheavals.

    Clearly, against that background, we can understand why people ran to Reform, to Communism, to indifferent secularism. By and large, here was no where to go. here was nowhere And today one watches as hundreds of sforim get published by obscure theologians who dig up the mystical peasant (in the sense of pagan mystic) feverish rants from that era, treat them like holy works and muddy the waters for generations. That's the scene today's baal teshuvah or perplexed convert is bound to land in. One sees it quite often; the wide-eyed look, the red strings, the gradual withdrawal from the here and now to the imagined heavens. But pointing out this or that heresy, no matter how true your charge, will do nothing, because the confused know too little of the past and the bigger picture to even understand what heresy is. Consider the possibility that we are witnessing a cycle, an echo or a replay, that has to play itself out when it runs out of fuel, which is usually money. And all we can do is hunker down and hide...here is a good place :)... and wait things out.

    Thank you for the reference to Megilla 4:9 and Brachot 5:3. Re. וְלֹא-שָׁמַע עַמִּי לְקוֹלִי; וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-אָבָה לִי. וָאֲשַׁלְּחֵהוּ, בִּשְׁרִירוּת לִבָּם; יֵלְכוּ, בְּמוֹעֲצוֹתֵיהֶם, with apologies, but while Temujin can sound the words out and recognizse a few, he has not even been to cheder and knows not what they mean. A translation would be appreciated.

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  46. Gavriel M., I agree with Temujin. Save your anger for current abuses in the religious world and try for some perspective. While I agee that the Tanya may be problematic for the more rational amongst us, it has been treasured by some very bright people - including Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, who was far from a Chabadnik. As Temujin remarked, it has some dated ideas - so be it. It also has some very good ideas such as GOD wishing a dwelling place in the lowly (world). Your intemperate language makes it seem that the angry rhetoric and heresy hunting comes from the left as well as the right.

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  47. Y. Aharon. I am not, in any sense whatsoever, of the 'left'. Be that as it may, I am not persuaded of the validity of arguments that run "The Gra/JB Solevitchik/ [very clever man] liked the Zohar/Tanya/[syncretic Jewish-pagan book] so it must be OK. Nor, I would wager, are you when you stop to really think about it. The problem with these ideas are not that they are "dated" it is that they are pagan ideas fundamentally opposed to the Torah. Things have changed very little since Jews made pots dedicated to "Hashem and his wife Ahsera" and burned incense on them in hills. The battle goes on and the point is not to carve out a little patch of sanity, but to win.

    Temujuin:
    1) Rav Yaakov Emden was one the greatest hacham of his age and one of the gretest of all Jewish history. Despite the fact that he personally believed kabbalah, he had the intellectual honesty and wisdom to see that the Zohar was a forgery (at a time when philological scholarship did not make this an easy thing to realise as it is today). He also stood firm against the Kabbalistic movements that threatened to destroy Judaism. Were it not for his heroic efforts, I suspect that they would have succeeded. As regards the amulets, as I understand it, modern research has shown him to be correct: these amulets do in fact contain Sabbatean messages and, therefore, Eyebeshitz was guilty as charged.
    As regards polygamy: it is a clear and unambiguous halacha that a man who has not been able to bear children must, after 10 years, take another wife. Because of the Herem of Rabbeinu Gershom, a Herem that has had no halachic force whatsoever for the last 1,000 years and none outside Europe in any case, this halacha is not kept at all. This would seem to me to be an open and shut case. Polygamy as an option for certain people who, for whatever reason, would be happier that way is also permitted by the Torah and, therefore, should be permitted by us too. My wife wouldn't stand for it for a second and I don't think I'd much enjoy it either, but I'm not everyone.

    Finally,

    http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2681.htm verse 13. I find that myself saying these words almost half a dozen times a day. It helps to some extent.

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  48. Y. Aharon. I am not, in any sense whatsoever, of the 'left'. Be that as it may, I am not persuaded of the validity of arguments that run "The Gra/JB Solevitchik/ [very clever man] liked the Zohar/Tanya/[syncretic Jewish-pagan book] so it must be OK.

    The argument is more along the lines of:

    The Gra/Rav Solevitchik/ [very clever man] liked the Zohar/Tanya/[other book Gavriel M considers heretical] so it might be that Gavriel M is going a bit too far. Or that he is casting things that have some good stuff and some not-so-good stuff as all bad.

    No, we would not follow our playmates in jumping off a cliff. But if we see them jumping off of something and we can't, from our vantage point, tell exactly what it is that they are jumping off, we might consider the possibility that it is not a cliff.

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  49. Gavriel M, Temujin would rather avoid a battle over rabbis. He doesn't see the era or its actors in black-and-white terms. R'Emden's stand on the Zohar and his opposition to Cabbalistic movements moves him up quite a few notches in this man's estimation, but many of his contemporaries and most historians seem to have thought he want a tad overboard with his heresy hunt. R'Eybenshutz's resume also has plenty of good highlights and no doubt a few faults. They were all, all honourable men... as the Bard wrote.

    Still, one is curious about this "modern research" which somehow got hold of certifiably genuine remnants of R'Eybenshutz' alleged amulets, presumably with his fingerprints or DNA all over them, determined without shadow of a doubt that they were Sabbatean and declared him "guilty as charged." Racks of Google servers froze during one's search for such, but all one could find is Emden's charges and claims, his contemporaries' opinions on the matter and a sad tale of a Jewish world divided, with accusations flying, rabbis losing positions, neighbor against neighbour over the heretic hunter Emden's feverish charges against a fellow scholar who still has left not a single shred of evidence in his work that he was a Sabbatean.

    Temujin loves Jewish history and can chat about it night and day, and is sad that in the Orthodox world it is largely ignored or left to quick off-hand analyses by a few rabbis. It warms his heart to see history treated in lively fashion but goodness, Gavriel, if one must get into history, does it have to be a revival of one of the most divisive events in early Modern Jewish history? Over Sabbateanism? That controversy with the accusations and counter-accusations took nearly a century to wind down and you want to start it up again? As Y. Aharon said, aren't there enough problems already?

    Temujin won't opine on the polygamy argument of yours as he lacks competence in halakha. He dares to comment though, that wives have views about such things and it may be practically advisable to heed your wife's declared opinion on the subject over what you may think is the letter of the law. If historical recreation is your passion, it just may be safer for you to join one of your American Civil War societies and to play with powder pan muskets, grapeshot and cannon than to bring up the topic with your better half at the Shabbat table.

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  50. Gavriel M., sorry about the misidentification. I don't really keep track of the various positions taken by commentors. In any case, I, too, reject kabbalistic ideas about evil as stemming from a seemingly independent cosmic force. However, such disbelief doesn't entitle me to speak publicly of kabbala in the derogatory term you used for the Tanya, which is based on those kabbalistic ideas. Moreover, there are various other ideas that have become part of a religious culture with which I have no affinity, yet still follow the norm. For example, the morning prayers - particularly on Shabbat, include statements about the seemingly sentient heavenly bodies. We have known for some time, however, that the planets need not have 'intelligence' or 'enthusiasm' for them to follow their proscribed orbits. Yet, we still say those phrases, treating them as inoffensive poetical expressions.

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  51. Overlooked in all of this is that astronomy, until the scientific revolution, was a purely mathematical discipline. We do not find any culture that considered it a physical discipline until the early modern Western era. Of course their reasoning was based on (Greek) scripture - the book of Wisdom 11:2, to be more precise: "Thou has disposed all things by measure and number and weight."

    Toby Huff of the University of Wisconsin has written an interesting account of the Islamic and Chinese worlds' first encounter with the telescope and how it differed from X-ains' and Jewish communities in Europe.

    Of course, heliocentrism was not demonstrated to be true until the 19th century when the parallax of the planents was finally observed and to this day it is easier,mathematically, to work with the premises of geocentrism when say, setting up a space walk for NASA.

    We accept a narrative of how wrong the ancients were but only because the new astronomy has been so fruitful to our understanding nature and natural phenomena. But there is little reason to accept that studying astronomy as a natural science, a physical science, is the only acceptable way or more true than the old methods and models.

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  52. Guest05, thank you for your comment. It is nice to see that people are still reading.

    While I'm not an expert in ancient thought, I don't know of any evidence for your assertion that the Greeks made this distinction between physical and mathematical notions of astronomy or that the attraction to mathematics was due to Greek scripture.

    To take one example, Anaxagoras was persecuted for theorizing (basically correctly) that the Sun was a large physical body, just as the earth.

    The reason that modern astronomy is important is that it leads to discovering the truth. Ancient astronomy had many mistakes.

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